How to be an Author: The myth of talent and importance of failure, a guest post by Rebecca Elliott
I’ve done a lot of talks in schools, I’ve taught adult classes on writing and illustrating and I occasionally get invited to parties and talk to people and when people find out what I do for a living they’ll more often than not say one or all of the following three things:
- ’Will I have heard of any of your books?’ – This is something all authors dread. There are over 8 billion books on Amazon and the average person can recall off the top of their head around 30 authors, most of whom are dead. So as I’m not JK Rowling, the chances are no, you will not know one of my books. This often signifies the end of the conversation and they walk away disappointed.
- ‘How many books have you sold?’ I always find this an interesting one as if you’d just met a teacher you wouldn’t ask, ‘how many of your students pass their exams?’ or an estate agent, ‘how many houses have you sold?’. Primary schools kids have a refreshingly blunt way of asking this same question – they just say, ‘how much money do you have?’
- ‘Wow, writing/illustrating is my dream job, how did you get into that?’ To this I’ll normally mumble something about how it was just always something I wanted to do and I’m incredibly lucky that it happened. Then they often say something lovely like, ‘Well you must be so talented’ to which I awkwardly shuffle my feet, choke back a denial, chuck back a glass of wine and change the subject. (That’s only at parties, I don’t often take wine with me on school visits)
So today I wanted to properly address that last question and the assumption, as lovely as it is, that it’s basically talent that allows people to make a living doing something creative.
My problem with the word, ‘talent’ is it suggests something elusive that we have no control over, an innate trait that we either have or don’t have, that we’re born with or we’re not – and we don’t really use that word in non-creative sphere’s. We don’t suggest that someone is a great firefighter, or doctor or politician because he’s so naturally talented. Yes we might think they naturally have gifts of bravery, or empathy, or misleading the public but there’s full recognition that those skills on their own are not nearly enough, and that actually the greatest reason they’re good at what they do is they’ve learned and embraced the skills of their chosen careers.
I think that most authors agree that natural talent is one of their least important traits in making them successful in what they chose to do. And moreover, the commonly held idea of natural talent in creative endeavours is off-putting to those who would have desperately loved to follow that creative dream but never felt like they ‘had what it takes’, because it doesn’t come easily to them like it seems to with others.
Here’s the shock news – writing doesn’t come easily to anyone.
‘I just sit at the typewriter and curse a bit’
‘Writing is the most ingenious torture devised for sins committed in previous lives.’
So if it’s not predominantly talent that leads to a successful creative career (and by ‘successful’ I don’t mean someone who makes millions and becomes famous, I just mean something you can make a living from), what is it?
Well I’m going to suggest there’s three things you need to have to make it happen.
- Practical optimism
- Acceptance of Failure
And yes, I get that that last one is a little contradictory but bear with me.
I would suggest that there has never been a successful author in the history of books who thought, ‘yea, I wouldn’t mind doing that, sounds alright’. Writing books isn’t something you fall into, it’s something you have to chase up a hill, wheezing and spluttering as you go, until you grab its tail and refuse to let go.
This necessary drive can be there from your earliest memories or can evolve with you, over time. The determined person realises you can’t wait for inspiration to strike, or for the perfect writing circumstances to present themselves, because the chances are they never will.
As Jack London said, ’You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.’
If you want to be a writer, really want it, you have to sit in front of a blank screen sometimes for hours, when you’d much rather be doing something else, and force the work out of you. I often find that the first page of writing on any given day is crap – and I knew it was crap whilst I was writing it. But it was just a case of getting my brain engaged and active and hopefully, by the second page I’m on a roll and at the end of the day I go back and delete that first page and pretend it never happened. Whatever works to get you going.
With me, I was determined from a very young age. Or was that precocious? I was always arty, always writing something or drawing something and I got good grades at school, I knew that one day I would be an artist or writer and it was as simple as that. Then that ambition got knocked out of me by the practicalities of life. When it came to going off to university instead of studying art I was advised to study something more ‘useful’ that might actually get me a job, so I chose to study Philosophy. Because of course you always see so many ‘Philosopher Wanted’ adverts down the job centre.
My dream of doing something traditionally ‘creative’ with my life had been beaten down with the realities of actually having to earn a living. And it’s not an uncommon story. So often I hear from parents about how talented and passionate their kid is at art or writing, or drama or music but how they’re going to study something more ‘sensible’ as a ‘back-up plan’. But if a kid is talented at or passionate about something, this is what they should be studying! There’s plenty more years for back-up plans down the line. And life’s way too short for sensible! This is what I know now. But back then, I did as I was advised and studied Philosophy. But although I may have a few small regrets that I didn’t study something more traditionally ‘creative’, actually, I found I loved philosophy and I think later on down the line it massively influenced the way I thought about and wrote about things. Creativity is a way of thinking not confined to the creative ‘arts’. And part of my message today, I hope, is that even when you think you’re going down the wrong path, if you chose to, you can redirect yourself and just call it a scenic detour.
So on my scenic detour I studied Philosophy where I learnt how to doubt my own existence for three years, then on concluding that I did actually exist, I got a 9-5 office job. Because that’s what you do after finishing a degree, right? I had a love of publishing and books so started working for a publisher, an ideal job, or so I thought. Only it was a financial services publisher whose exciting publications included, ‘The Mortgage Advisors Handbook Vol 1.’ And about two hours into the job I realised – I HATE THIS.
I literally used to make myself fall asleep in the toilet just to pass a few hours of the day. The fact that nobody noticed this kind of proves how unimportant my job was.
And I knew if I didn’t do something about it I would be working in a dull grey cubicle for the rest of my life.
Don’t get me wrong, of course I know that ‘office-work’ covers a huge range of important careers, a lot of which are very creative and fulfilling and suits a lot of people, just turns out I’m not one of them. Equally there are plenty of people who aren’t happy in their job but just go through their working life living for the weekend, when they can be themselves again, when life is fun again. But life is short as it is and for me, the idea of spending two thirds of your life just waiting for the other third to come round isn’t something I could stomach.
So the determination set back in. Sometimes it’s fear of the alternative that can fuel ambition. So I spent every evening, every lunch hour, and every moment when the boss wasn’t looking, and I’d normally be asleep on the toilet, researching how to become what had always been my dream job, but which had got lost along the way, gobbled up by life’s practicalities. The dream of becoming a writer and illustrator. Turns out for me, I needed to do that dull job to give me the kick up the butt I needed, to do what I really wanted to do.
After a lot of research and hard work and with a great sense of achievement I finally sent off a finished children’s book manuscript with some drawings, to a bunch of publishers, and sure enough…it was brutally rejected by many MANY publishers.
And this is where the second trait of a successful creative person kicks in.
Rejection is a part of any author’s, indeed any creative’s career. You learn that pretty early on and you can either let it finish you or you can let yourself mope for 24 hours before your often un-founded optimism kicks in and you tell yourself next time will be different. Because you’ll make sure it’s different. If you’re a realist you don’t just blindly think if I try again there’ll be a different outcome. You realise there are practical things you need to do to make it happen. You research. You go to the libraries and book shops and read all the other books similar to yours to see why they’re published and yours isn’t. You join critique groups. You write to the publishers who rejected your work and ask for feedback. And listen to it when you get it. You go on courses. You read countless articles online about how to improve your skills and get better, then you make yourself get better. You do this over and over and over again, often in the evenings and in lunch hours because you’ve got to earn a living at the same time.
However, being a realist sometimes means giving up on bits of your dream and going with the flow. For me, at this point I put a pin in the writing and concentrated on my illustration instead. I put together a portfolio of drawings and after many, many more rejections, eventually a few illustration jobs trickled in, then a few more, until, after a year, I had an agent and enough work to ditch the dull office job and sail off into the perfect creative sunset that was my life (a-hem).
Everything was going great, I was an actual book illustrator, didn’t earn much and I still didn’t have the confidence to try again as an author but I was happy enough, I was my own boss, I was married to a great guy, I got pregnant with our first child, who would have of course also grown up to be an artist or a writer, or perhaps a great guitarist like her Dad. And then.
My daughter, Clemmie, was born with massive brain damage. And it was clear very early on that she would never walk or talk let alone become all the things we’d hoped for.
Life has a way of throwing curve balls at your head when you least expect it and this one hit me straight in the face and knocked me to the floor. And I probably could have stayed down there. Would have been easier. But from there I got a totally new perspective on everything.
Clemmie couldn’t do or achieve anything, by society’s standards, yet she taught me more about life in her ten short years than anyone else. While the rest of us run around trying to be something we’re not, or trying to live up to what’s expected of us in terms of ambition, or wealth or achievement, she just sat. And smiled. And cuddled.
By simply being, rather than doing she was a complete ray of sunshine into my life that changed me into a better person. She taught me not be be afraid of failure, and to value gentleness over strength, fulfilment over ambition. She became, and although she’s no longer with us, continues to be my muse, my inspiration for everything.
So I started to write, this time not as a way out of a dull job but because I wanted to, I wasn’t even worried about whether my writing would be published or not, I just wrote for me. But to my surprise, publishers liked what I’d written. My books Just Because and Sometimes, about Clemmie’s relationship with her little brother Toby, are now two of the most successful books about children with disabilities and are read not only by kids who see their own disability in them but by other kids who through them can experience disability as something positive, not something to be sad about or scared of. And through writing them my own confidence as a writer grew and I wrote tonnes more picture books and then the Owl Diaries which has had incredible success, and that spurred me on to do what I’d always truly dreamed of doing – writing novels.
I have so very much to be thankful to my daughter for.
The practical optimist knows that the creative career and life is not going to be a bed of roses, that inspiration won’t come knocking, instead you have to drag it in off the street, that publishers and readers will only respond to your work if it’s good, not just if you’re lucky, that life will often do it’s best to throw you off course but maybe that new path isn’t as dark as it first seems and will provide it’s own new inspirations and opportunities.
Acceptance of Failure
I’ve touched on this already but I can’t stress enough that there has never been a successful creative person who hasn’t met failure along the way. If you follow your creative dreams, determined to make a career out of them and not just a hobby, there’s no way of avoiding failure.
And it never ends!
Well-respected actors put out terrible films all the time, best-selling debut novelists put out a second book that dies a death with critics and readers alike, if you’ve had one very successful thing that can be the curse on the rest of your works forever more! My Owl Diaries series, which I’m proud of but by no means is what I want to be remembered for, has sold over 6 million copies. It is VERY likely that my career has peaked! But that will never stop me from turning up every day and carrying on.
And we learn far more from our failures than our successes. Which is a good job as I’ve experienced a LOT of failure. I literally have drawers full of rejection letters.
My most epic fail is my first novel. I decided I wanted to move away from picture books and write novels for teenagers, so I spent four years, FOUR YEARS! on my first draft. It was good enough to (eventually) get me a new literary agent as opposed to my illustration one, and we then worked on it for a further year. Then when my ‘baby’ was finally sent out in to the world, it was, again, brutally rejected by a LOT of publishers.
BUT one publisher said, ‘we don’t want this book but we love Rebecca’s writing – does she have anything else?’
Which of course is just what you want to hear when you’ve just spent 4 years on something!
But when that publisher is Penguin you don’t argue. So I looked through my notebooks and found a single sentence, ’IDEA: 14 year old overweight girl, wants to be a stand-up comedian’. My agent sent it to them. And they immediately came back with – yes! That’s the one, get her to write that!
So I did. I wrote it in 3 months. And I now, finally, and amazingly, have two published novels by Penguin in the UK and Peachtree in the USA. Which is a total dream come true and was worth every heartache and set-back.
I didn’t know it at the time but everything I’ve done, all the successes and failures, the bad choices and the good ones, the dull jobs, the philosophy degree, my wonderful though painful experience of having Clemmie, they all went in to the melting pot that is my creative life, and made me the author I am today. Everyone has failures and sadnesses and disappointments but maybe if you chose to look at them from a different perspective perhaps they don’t have to detract from your dreams and passions but instead become a part of them, evolving with them and spurring you on to something else.
And never mind the ‘creative’ life, isn’t the just the point of life itself? To be able to say ‘yes there was heartache, and extraordinary pain, and epic failure, but there was also exquisite beauty, and joy and fulfilment, and boy was it one hell of a ride.’
Meet the author
REBECCA ELLIOTT is an author and illustrator of many picture books and The Owl Diaries early chapter book series. Pretty Rude for a Girl is a sequel to Pretty Funny for a Girl, her first YA novel. She earned a degree in philosophy and once did a brief stint in a dull office. Now, she enjoys eating creme eggs, loudly venting on a drum kit, and wasting too much time on computer games. She lives in England with her two boys, her frantic dog Frida, and permanently sarcastic cat, Bernard.
About Pretty Rude for a Girl
Haylah Swinton is a comedic hit on her new YouTube channel, but will her popularity backfire? Prepare to snort, guffaw, and cringe through Rebecca Elliott’s hilarious companion to Pretty Funny for a Girl.
Big, bold, and funnier than a cat in a onesie playing bagpipes, Haylah Swinton’s been busy proving she’s an all-star comedian through her new YouTube channel. Yet life online is its own can of trolls. And proving she’s funny is tougher than she thought it’d be! Plus, her new boyfriend Dylan hasn’t even tried kissing her yet, and when her deadbeat dad decides to turn up, life as she’s known it is tossed into one big, colossal mess. And what better way to vent, than to spill the tea to her newly found audience online? But when friends and family discover Haylah’s ranting videos, it turns out Haylah’s got quite a lot of explaining to do.
Rebecca Elliott’s follow up to the hilarious Pretty Funny for a Girl fires on all cylinders for YA readers. Family drama, boy drama, and a budding comedian at the center of it all makes for a laugh-out-loud, binge-worthy read.
Publisher: Peachtree Publishing Company
Publication date: 10/01/2021
Age Range: 12 – 16 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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